C. Harvey in Baltimore.

Meet the Designer Who’s Bringing Baltimore’s Youth Up With Her

© Shan Wallace

Fashion designer and social entrepreneur C. Harvey talks about her inspirations, learnings and future with Baltimore's Gifted and Generation of Dreamers in this MAVENS.

C. Harvey
C. Harvey

To make a loud splash in the world, sometimes you need to be quiet and just listen. Cadeatra Harvey, better known as C. Harvey, a fashion designer from Baltimore knows — and preaches — the value of this stillness. After a severe hardship with her first streetwear line, Generation of Dreamers, in 2014, Harvey found herself living in her mother’s basement for a year and disconnecting with the outside world.

“No internet for a while, no phone for a while, no social media,” she said.

“The first three months there was no creativity; it was just a lot of crying and a lot of trying to figure out how I even got here,” she said, sitting on the small Ikea couch that was her bed for a year in the large, cluttered basement. There’s a small window towards the top of the room that’s covered with a towel as a makeshift curtain. Flashes of Harvey’s different artistic outlets are everywhere — paintings, garments, posters. “After I got myself together … it was really important for me to practice stillness because I was so used to just doing school business [and working] all the time. I [thought], since I’m dirt poor and I really can’t afford to do anything, I think this would be the best time to get to know myself.”

What started as an internal exercise — as well as the natural effect of not having any money to afford such luxuries — snowballed into a new artistic community and e-commerce initiative for the city’s black youth. With Baltimore’s Gifted, Harvey works hand-in-hand in frequent meetings with a small class of teen artists to realize and reach their goals and visualize their professional and personal futures. She passes on the skills and lessons that she’s learned the hard way while building up the next generation of Baltimore-based creatives and innovators.

Most concretely this growth manifests itself through the hands-on teaching of the participants how to showcase and sell their art — either through prints, clothes or other products featuring their art. “The cool thing is they get back 80 percent of net sales,” she explained. “I’m not here just to give them a platform and take their money, I’m really here to show you there’s a way that you can make money.”

Beyond making money, the teen participants are expanding their horizons by learning design, photography, production, merchandising and marketing. Harvey is already working to give them the keys to the castle. “I’m literally building Baltimore’s Gifted as a gift to give to [the youth] so by the end of the third year, which is next year. They can actually own and lead it as their own business,” she said with excitement.

Harvey’s usually calm and measured tone falls away as she speaks about the bright future of Baltimore’s Gifted as well as the possibilities for other programs like this: “People think you need to have just a huge team, all the resources, an office and all these different things to help people and [you don’t]. I took the money in my pocket, the skills that I had and I just created something ... So if I can be a living, breathing template that would be great, but I hope Baltimore is paying attention about how much you can do with just a little bit.”

And all of this goodwill and beauty in Baltimore started with this stillness. Growing up in Baltimore, Harvey was given the ultimate treat from her parents — freedom. “They really gave me a lot of independence and space to have an imagination,” she said. “They really didn’t push [anything] on me, [they always said] stuff like ‘go make clothes; go paint; ride your bike; go play basketball! I appreciate that.” That encouragement helped Harvey launch Generation of Dreamers, but that journey wasn’t always easy.

“I think I’ll try to make this the last time I talk about it because I don’t entertain trauma, that’s all,” Harvey said with a confidence built on learning and growth. In 2013, Generation of Dreamers was gaining a lot of momentum and Harvey was invited to a trade show in Los Angeles to show off her designs (“It was a huge deal cause usually you have to apply: They invited me.”), but she wasn’t taking care of her own mental health, well-being or saving for the future:

“I literally exhausted all my money just to get to this trade show but I still didn’t have enough money for inventory. So, I got there and people loved what I was doing, wanted to place orders but they were like, ‘Yeah, we can’t wait two, three weeks for you to produce it, we need it in two to three days.’ And I just couldn’t produce that fast. [Also], I was very arrogant; I would brag that I was doing everything by myself … not realizing that scared them because they understood not one person could handle everything.” Harvey gave up everything — job, apartment, life — to move to LA and focus on her line. “In my mind [I thought I was] going to go to LA and blow up…and it didn’t so I had to come back, move in this basement in the middle of winter.” She paused as she tries to close the door on that chapter of her life for the final time: “Basically, I rushed it. I rushed it and I didn’t think it through all the way and that landed me in this basement for a year.”

As Harvey sits in her mother’s basement again, looking around at the boxes that still have her name scribbled on the side of them, she recalled the moment she realized she needed to do more for her community. “Something struck me and [I thought] while I’m building myself back up, I need to build something for them. Because, I’m not really successful if I make a bunch of money but then come back to Baltimore and everybody is sad and depressed. I want to be successful with my people ... I just wanted to make a program that I wish existed for me when I was coming up.”

And she has. The positive effects of Baltimore’s Gifted can be felt all across the city. Its collections can be found in the Baltimore Museums of Art and Industry and the participants have collaborated with multimedia artists to expand their profile. But Harvey doesn’t believe her current path with Baltimore’s Gifted should be considered special or out of the ordinary. “I don’t think I’m socially active at all,” she said as she paused to find the right words. “And I don’t call myself an activist, I’m just doing what I know needs to be done. I don’t really put like that activist label on this, just like this is a responsibility. I need to do it, so it’s just going to get done.”

With a plan set in place to give Baltimore’s Gifted to the youth who have put their heart and soul into their art, Harvey is ready to return to the fashion industry on her own terms with Generation of Dreamers. “It’s really exciting now because I’m more of the person who I actually want to be, so it’s not looking at like with the other brands did and try and copy it, it’s like really know in my mind what’s my vision,” Harvey said, drawing in a deep breath centering herself. “I’m not even really focusing on where fashion is going, I just focused on where I’m going with my fashion.”

C. Harvey portrait image.
C. Harvey

The three best pieces of advice C. Harvey ever received (and actually took)

Health is wealth.

“I met Master P in LA and I kept asking him about money because I wanted him to invest in me. I really liked Master P, and he kept saying something like, ‘You look really tired.’ And I said, ‘I know, like I’m really burned out, I’m really worn out.’ And he was like, ‘Uh huh,’ and so I ask him about money and he says ‘Health is wealth.’ He kept answering every question with ‘Health is wealth,’ and I’m like, ‘Sir, I’m not asking about health!’ But he was pretty much saying that people throw burnt out light bulbs. People are investing in you, not your idea, so you need to be healthy because if you’re not healthy people going to waste their money on you. He just kept answering my questions with ‘health is wealth,’ and I was just like, [whispers] ‘why do you keep doing that?’ [He said to me] ‘seriously, your health is everything. If you’re incapacitated, you can’t make any money for anybody.”

Stop calling yourself different.

“April Walker and Shanti Das both said stop calling yourself different: You are unique and there is always a space for you, you just have to believe it.”

You can’t change the game if you don’t understand it.

“When I was working at Verizon Wireless Government Call Center, the director, we used to have some friction because he was just always be like super happy to be around white people and I’m just like, I know something seems wrong. And then he sat me down one day [and asked me] ‘What’s wrong? Do you not like me?’ And, this is again before I really knew anything, I’m like, ‘Yeah, you’re playing the game and ... We need to be with our own.’ I was just being very ignorant about everything and I remember him not getting upset or anything, he just kind of laughed and he said, ‘You can’t change the game if you don’t understand it.’ And I had to really sit with that because if you’re on the outside of something looking in, you think you know — or because I’m black I think I know what black issues are--but until you [truly] experience something you really don’t know. So he had to like really teach me, like, he’s trying to hack the system from the inside out. So, from the outside it may look one way, but he had to say I have to understand what they’re doing so I can disrupt it. I’ve really carried that throughout the years.”